Helping Learners Understand Spoken English

Idiom: Break the ice

Meaning and Use

To break the ice means to do something to create a more relaxed and comfortable social situation. It is common when meeting people for the first time. Many people are nervous the first time they meet someone or when asked to speak in front of other people. When we break the ice, we get things started. Teachers have to break the ice every time they meet new students. In fact, we even have special activities called icebreakers that we use to help students feel more comfortable. Icebreaker activities also help us start to get to know our students and help students get to know each other and us. We might also use humor to lighten the mood. Icebreakers are also common in meetings, trainings, and team building events.

2 ice breaking ships break the ice at sea
Ice breaking ships help other boats get where they need to go

Origin of break the ice

While idioms sound natural to native speakers, they might seem very strange to those learning a language. The meaning of an idiom cannot usually be guessed by the words themselves. However, by making connections and looking back in history, an idiom can make a little more sense and be easier to understand. Often, because idioms come from language used hundreds of years ago, it can be difficult to know their origins. There are sometimes multiple explanations. In the case of break the ice

  1. Some say that this idiom comes from the ice breaking ships. Just like these ships help pave the way (make progress easier, like paving a road does for cars) for boats to travel on the ocean, an ice breaker (an activity done to break the ice) makes communication easier. Before someone breaks the ice, there is little or no communication. Similarly, before the ice breaking ships break the ice, other boats cannot move forward.
  2. According to, this idiom did not come from ice breaking ships because there is evidence that the saying existed before the invention of the ships. You can read more about that evidence at knowyourphrase.

What is the ice?

In this idiom, the ice is not ice. It is the tension or discomfort that we feel in a particular situation.

two women sitting in a cafe before the ice has been broken between them
Someone needs to break the ice

What is break?

Break means to separate into smaller pieces and often ruins or destroys something. While break often has a negative meaning, in this idiom, we are breaking tension. Since tension is uncomfortable, breaking it is a positive thing, as we can see in the picture below.

two women smiling while looking at a phone
One of them did something to break the ice

Examples of situations where we need to break the ice:

  • a meeting
  • a blind date
  • a conference
  • a networking event
  • the first day of class
  • the first day at a new job
  • times when we are arguing with friends or family
  • events where we are meeting people for the first time
  • a situation or place where we are trying to meet new people, such as a bar

What are some ways to break the ice?

Unless you are a confident and outgoing extrovert or a friendly people-person (a person who enjoys or is good at interacting with others), breaking the ice is difficult. Many people feel shy or hesitant to make the first move. Remember, most people are going to be thankful that you made the effort to break the ice! It’s hard for them too! You can be the one to make the atmosphere more comfortable by using one of the methods below.

  • Be the first to say hello!
  • Introduce yourself: My name’s Trey. What’s yours?
  • Make a comment: It’s been so hot this summer.
  • Ask someone a relevant question: Is this seat taken?
  • Pair a comment and a question: I love your bag. Where’d you get it?
  • Pay someone a compliment: Hey, great jacket! or That’s a really cool iPhone case.

The examples above can be used in any situation where you encounter people for the first time. Next we’ll look at some situation specific examples.

What to say in particular situations

  • A new job: How long have you worked here?
  • A networking event: What do you do? or Have you been to many of these events? or What brings you here?
  • A conference or event with a speaker: Have you seen this speaker before? I hear she’s fantastic. or Is she any good?
  • If you are arguing with someone: I’d like to make things better between us. Can we talk?
  • Sports fans can try to find other sports fans by asking something like: Did you catch the game last night?

These are just a few options. You’ll find many more if you Google “ice breakers for starting a conversation.” If you want icebreakers for a particular situation, like a blind date, include that in your search. Your overall goal when meeting new people is to make a connection. The best way to do this is by first showing interest. If you’re lucky, you might discover you have something in common, which is one way we connect with others as it gives us something to talk about that both people are interested in or at least have experience with.

Failed attempts

So, what do you do if you try to break the ice with someone and you are not successful? Not everyone is in the mood to talk. If you try to break the ice and the other person doesn’t seem interested in talking, don’t worry about it! It’s not the end of the world. Who knows what’s happening in their life. Don’t take it personally. Move on. Try again with someone else.

Real life examples of break the ice

To hear examples of people using break the ice in over 150 different YouTube videos, head over to YouGlish.

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